Culture and Tradition: Customs

We are exploring the seven different elements that make up what we call “culture.”

Customs and traditions constitute another of the elements that make up what we call culture.  Customs and traditions are the rules of behavior among a people–written and unwritten.  When we go to the grocery store and a crowd forms near the new display of fresh fruit, do you wait in turn in a single file, or do you move your cart around others so that you can get to the fruit you want?  Do you pick through the fruit, handling items, putting some back while keeping others, or do you know that if you touch the fruit, you must buy it?  If you are an employee in a business and what appears to be a family with a woman, a man and some teenage children approach you, to whom do you speak, officially:  the entire group, the man, the woman, the teens?  Whom is it appropriate to hug in public?

These are all  examples of custom and tradition, and each culture and sub culture in a community will answer these questions differently.  I spent a day, recently, welcoming students and their parents back to school. They came in every configuration of family that one might imagine, from skin color to language and religion grouping. Some came with a mom and a dad where dad did all the talking. Some came with moms wearing hijab.  Some came with two moms.  Some came with older siblings. Former students came to visit with me.  One said, as she was leaving and hugging me, now that I’m graduated, I can hug you.

How are these rules of behavior communicated to us?  Who communicates them?  To what degree is fear used to instill these rules of behavior?  What if these rules are ignorant of an unspoken reality–gender, sexual orientation, racial constructs?  When we are approached by those who hold apparently different practices from us, can we find a way to exercise a gentle curiosity that opens the doors of culture and tradition between us? When we are approached by people who have strongly negative views of a particular group, can we find a gentle but firm way of inquiry to stay in dialogue with them?

Recently, a white man a little older than me declared to me, knowing that I am a teacher, that “the problem with schools was the black family.”  So, I asked him:  how many black families do you know?  There was a long and difficult silence.  He didn’t really know any black families.  Who teaches us the rules of behavior–about ourselves and about others? How do we go about questioning those rules to see if they are helpful, if they are based in some reality and fact?  Who taught you how to be in the world?  Who taught us how others are in the world?  Those received rules of behavior make up part of what we call culture, and they are shaping us whether we are aware of them, or not.

Bob Patrick

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